Discover more from William Shunn’s Main Wish Null
Root: Part IV, Chapter 7
On her next jump, Hasta stumbles across enemies more terrifying than any she’s yet encountered, while Lamm fights his way toward her through another of A.A.’s cunning traps.
For more on this project, please see “This Year a Serial Takes Root.”
After the horror that was the last jump, Frida didn’t want to take point again, so Hasta volunteered to do it herself. The massacre site, it turned out, was a rest stop about forty miles west of Sioux Falls, South Dakota. They were less than three hundred fifty miles from Mount Rushmore.
The chances of an ambush at the next stage were high, Hasta knew, whether by the daemons who’d attacked Elaine and her crew or by whomever had set the fire in Minnesota. As she faced the firing squad of Juan, Kylie, and Frida, she held her comm window tightly in her fist. If anything bad happened at the far end, she didn’t want to have to fumble around for it.
Hasta tried not to look at the nearby carnage as Juan counted down. At zero they jabbed. She felt her right foot yanked through her left shoulder into vertiginous darkness and pearly mist.
She fell backward. Her shoulder smashed against hard pavement. The comm window popped out of her hand.
As Hasta scrambled to her knees, mist drew back around her on all sides, as if she were a drop of oil plinked into murky dishwater. She spent several panicked seconds scanning the black asphalt before she finally spotted the comm window lying half on a yellow lane stripe. It took her several seconds more to get enough of a grip on the impossibly thin square to pick it up from the road surface.
She raised her finger to the comm window but hesitated. She looked around, feeling a strange chill. The mist had withdrawn only as far as the margins of this roadway—which, with its crumbly black asphalt, was nothing like the interstate. A deathly stillness ruled, which the bright sky overhead did nothing to abate.
On every previous jump, Frida had arrived at a preexisting clearing in the mist. Why? Maybe someone had preceded them to each of those locations, someone who was also jumping toward Mount Rushmore and the bus. Maybe Frida had been drawn to those clear spots by the same rounding function that prevented a person from landing inside a solid object.
“Okay,” Hasta said aloud. “If that’s the case, then where am I now? Why did I land here?”
Maybe it was Frida or Kylie’s inexperience at flipping, bobbling the shot so Hasta only traveled a few miles. Maybe she’d managed to get ahead of whoever was leapfrogging alongside them, so she was now blazing the trail.
Or maybe she was simply lost.
Hasta turned in a slow circle, trying to stay calm. She felt hideously exposed. She needed to figure out which direction was which, and fast. She thought she remembered which way she’d been facing when she fell. That would have been east, with her back to the west.
She turned and started following the yellow stripe to what she hoped was the west.
The hole in the fog slowly expanded, moving with her and opening up to reveal long grass growing at the side of the road. She hadn’t gone fifty feet when the comm window buzzed in her hand. She jumped so hard she nearly dropped it.
“Yeah?” she said.
“Hasta, are you okay?” Frida asked. “What’s going on?”
“I’m fine,” Hasta said. “Just maybe a little, um, lost. I’m trying to figure out where I am.”
“We should figure it out together, don’t you think? I don’t have to tell you how creepy it is here.”
“I don’t know,” Hasta said, trudging on. “I don’t want all of us getting lost. Just give me—hey, wait. Here’s a sign.”
A billboard loomed out of the mist at the right side of the road, taking shape as Hasta drew nearer. The sign was wooden, with Old West-style text painted directly on the planks:
WALL I’LL BE DRUGGED Only 237 mi. to the world-famous WALL DRUG But if you want to see it, HURRY! Time is running out
“But I don’t want to see Wall Drug,” Hasta said. She’d heard of the elaborate roadside tourist trap on the road to Rushmore, with its maze of wonders that included everything from singing cowboys to mechanical dinosaurs. “I just want to—”
As the hole in the mist continued to expand, two figures standing near the sign emerged from the fog. Each was tall and slender, dressed in a long trench coat and fedora. The male’s clothes gleamed like dull silver, while the female’s were burnished bronze. Even from twenty feet away, they seemed to be looking down on her from a great height. Both were beautiful, almost too beautiful to look at. Behind them, she could just make out the grille of a wicked silver sports car.
“Halt,” said the male.
His voice resonated like the deepest, clearest horn Hasta had ever heard. It turned her bowels to water. She halted, telling herself it was her own decision.
“Um,” she said into the comm window, shaking, “I think I’m in big trouble.”
The window expanded in her hand and popped out of her grip. The two terrifyingly beautiful daemons began walking toward her. All she wanted to do was study their awful faces.
The sound of fingers snapping broke her trance. Hasta looked down. A leather-clad arm stretched up from what was now a meter-square hole in the asphalt, clicking frantically for attention. “Hasta!” came Frida’s voice.
“You are in violation of multiple firewall quarantines,” said the female daemon, raising her palm. “Please halt and present security credentials for verification.”
Hasta dived into the hole. The world went topsy-turvy. Stars exploded as she crashed into Frida.
As she pushed herself to her knees, shaking her aching head, she looked around to see if Frida was okay. Instead she found herself alone. On a tiled surface of gray and salmon marble.
Guts churning, Hasta sprang to her feet and whirled in a circle.
“Interesting, eh?” said Ivan, his voice like sludge.
He was standing about ten feet from her, dressed in his leather armor and forest greens. He held a double-headed axe unsteadily in both hands, which was weird because she thought he’d had a sword before. Behind him stood Frida, Juan, and Kylie, all asleep, all clad in similar garb, and all grouped together like captured chess pieces. Beyond them on the marble plain loomed the ominous wall of black clouds, but there were no monsters in sight.
Hasta nearly cried out in relief. “Ivan, you’re okay!” she said.
“More or less, for the moment,” said Ivan, looking groggy and ill. His voice came to her with startling resonance and clarity, as if he were speaking directly into her ear underwater. But he was breathing hard and holding his side. He seemed to be bleeding from multiple wounds. Blood and grime darkened his face. He pointed past her with his axe. “But look. We’re closer now.”
She turned. About a hundred yards away stood a sleeping figure she now recognized as LaVell. Another hundred yards beyond lay the altar atop which a shrouded figure reclined.
“That’s got to be where we’re headed,” said Hasta excitedly. She started toward the altar, motioning to Ivan. “Come on, what are we waiting for?”
“It’s not so easy,” Ivan said, shaking his head. “I’ve been walking but it doesn’t seem to get me anywhere. At least, not when I’m trying. And anyway, someone’s got to protect them.” He gestured at the inert figures behind him.
“From what?” Hasta asked uneasily. “Where are all the monsters?”
Ivan pointed again with the axe, this time off to the side. “There, maybe.”
She looked. From behind one of the distant pillars that ringed the horizon, a shining star had appeared. It moved away from the pillar in a horizontal line, then slowed and brightened a little.
The star had changed directions and was flying toward them.
Ivan backed toward the sleepers, holding his axe high. Hasta took a couple of steps toward the soaring speck of light. She unslung her crossbow, slotted a bolt from her quiver, and took aim.
As the flying spark drew nearer, great flapping wings became visible. The glow resolved into naked, silvery human form. It was heading straight for her.
Hasta’s finger tensed on the trigger. The figure was moving impossibly fast. By the time its features came clear it was almost upon her, diving. It was the male daemon.
She fired into its face.
Not waiting to see if she’d hit it, she flung herself to the tiles. The daemon swooped above her close enough that the wind of its passage tugged at her clothing.
Swallowing, Hasta scrambled to her feet and turned. The brilliant daemon had pulled up hard and shot high into the air. Now it banked through a graceful curve, turned, and dived again.
Hasta ran, hoping to draw it as far away from Ivan and the others as possible. She fumbled to get another bolt in place. Over her shoulder, she saw the daemon screeching down the air, growing nearer by the moment. Cranking the crossbow mechanism tight, Hasta flung herself onto her back. The quiver jolted against her spine, scattering bolts everywhere, but as she slid across the marble Hasta worried only about her aim.
The daemon shot past not three feet above her. As it snatched at her with a taloned hand, Hasta fired. She didn’t see where the bolt went, but one of its arms jerked in to cover its gleaming belly.
Then it was past. With the wind still fluttering her hair, Hasta snatched a bolt up from the tiles and pushed herself to her feet. The daemon shot straight away across the plain, dwindling to a spark.
It slowed, banked, and began its return. A second, brassier spark flew from behind the distant pillar and trailed it.
Hasta glanced back at Ivan, who stood with his axe in one hand and his bloody arm out to the side, as if to hold the others back. Grim-faced, he nodded once to Hasta. He was pale beneath the grime, and the head of the axe wobbled. He didn’t look like he could actually fight.
With a second bolt in her hand, Hasta ran shrieking to meet the oncoming daemons. She nelt, took a deep breath, and drew a bead on the swelling silver streak. She exhaled slowly as she tracked the daemon’s progress.
It smiled hungrily.
Rough hands shook her shoulders. “Hasta!” Frida screamed. “Please, Hasta, wake up!”
Hasta blinked in the sunlight, then scrambled backward away from Frida. “Oh, my God,” she gasped. “Oh, no.”
Frida, on her knees in the parking lot of the ruined rest area, looked up in confusion as Hasta staggered to her feet. She seemed a little green around the gills. “What is it? What’s wrong?”
Hasta looked around at Juan, Kylie, Bobby, LaVell, Moses, all watching her with concern.
“The daemons,” she said, “the ones who did this. I had one in my sights, dead to rights. God.” She swallowed. “Now they must know we’re here.”
Lamm dragged the comm window through the kennel while the six whining German shepherds scrambled over one another to get out of his way. The window was awkward to handle because it was already nearly as wide as his outstretched arms. Something must have been propping it open on the other side because he couldn’t seem to shrink it at all. He hoped the opposite would not be true.
He shuffled backward through the unlatched gate and out into the storage yard. Shipping containers awaiting transfers that would never come lined both sides of the yard, together with a few abandoned semi-tractors. He laid the window faceup on a stretch of bare concrete and stared at it, thinking.
It hadn’t taken him long to find the window once he’d gotten his bearings at the Trail’s Travel Center. It was leaning at the far end of the guard dogs’ kennel, a placement that would have given a human difficulty but posed a daemon no problem at all. Where he’d wasted his time was simply trying to get through it. His way was blocked on the other side by jumbled wooden beams that proved impossible to move. After feeling around he concluded the window was lying facedown inside a pile of some kind of wreckage or debris.
If he couldn’t get through the window in its current position, the key would be to stretch it to a point where he could. He anchored one end of the window with two cinder blocks from a stack near the kennel, setting the blocks inside it at the two corners. He positioned another cinder block fifty feet away, then went back to the window and grasped the unanchored edge. Shuffling backward like a man unrolling a carpet, he stretched the window along the ground until it reached the third cinder block. Holding the window in place with one hand, he set the block inside it and tentatively let go. The block held.
Lamm mopped his brow with one sleeve and knelt at the window’s edge. Now when he put his hand through, he felt soft, loamy soil. Good. That probably meant he’d managed to extend the window out from under the debris on the far side.
Of course, it was still facing downward, and was apparently underground.
His hand dug into the soil, wriggling under and past the window’s edge and up again. He dug far enough that he had to lay prostrate on the cement, his arm curled under himself and up in such a way that it felt like his hand should be groping around inside his own rib cage. His fingers encountered a mat of tightly woven roots. He ripped and snatched. His hand broke through cool leaves of grass into open air.
A grin spread over Lamm’s face as he drew his filthy arm back through the soil. He took off his hat and coat, leaving them in an untidy heap on the cement. He knelt inside the window and attacked the soil below with both hands, scooping mounds of it out into the storage yard. Then he wriggled headfirst into the hole he’d dug.
A minute later, Lamm’s head popped up through the middle of a grassy lawn. He was gulping air when a painful translation anomaly pierced his brain, tiny but sharp. He pounded his forehead against the yielding grass until he could wriggle his arms free of the ground and clap his hands to his head.
Writhing in pain, Lamm dragged the rest of himself out of the ground and flopped in the grass. He heard shouts and an engine nearby, but the splitting headache had left him rubbery. He tried to focus on the anomaly. Weirdly, it seemed to come from two hundred miles away, which should have been well beyond his ability to detect.
Maybe out here in the hinterlands, the rules were different. Or maybe he was just going crazy.
Lurching to his feet, Lamm realized he could sense another anomaly much closer at hand. No—two or three more, like instruments playing the same note but more quietly. One was obviously the comm window he’d just tunneled through. The others were tougher to get a fix on, but they felt illicit too.
A nearby voice barked a terse order. Lamm turned that way.
To his immediate left lay a huge scrap pile that must once have been a building—probably where his window had been trapped. Then, in the middle of a parking lot littered with burnt vehicles and body parts, he saw two human children holding an input window open for a blue Honda Odyssey.
“Hey!” Lamm shouted, staggering toward them as clods of dirt fell from his hair and clothing. “Stop!”
The minivan disappeared through the window even as the two brown-skinned children, a boy and a girl, turned startled faces toward him. “Zombie!” shrieked the girl.
“Oh, my God, hurry!” the boy shouted, motioning her through the window.
“No, wait!” cried Lamm. He reached out a grasping hand, though the children were too far away for him to seize either of them. “Please! What happened here?”
But the girl was gone. As Lamm struggled to keep his feet under him, the boy ducked through and pulled the window shut.
Lamm sank to his knees amidst the wreckage of a splintered tree. These children fleeing the scene of a massacre—were they translating their way toward the Bus? Were they the ones leaving the traps behind and not A.A.? And who were all these dead people?
Lamm shuddered, surveying the carnage. The world was going to end badly, so badly. Whatever had happened here would soon replay itself a billion times as badly if he couldn’t somehow set things right.
With a heavy heart, he started searching for the window into the next trap. √
To be continued…